The Gray Market: Why Gagosian Might Be Death-Proof (and Other Insights)
Our columnist tackles how Gagosian could outlast its founder and offers thoughts on the Getty's fundraising drive and digital art's future.
Every Monday morning, artnet News brings you The Gray Market. The column decodes important stories from the previous week—and offers unparalleled insight into the inner workings of the art industry in the process.
This week, three stories pulsing with possibility…
GHOST IN THE MACHINE
On Tuesday, Larry Gagosian sat down with mega-collector and FLAG Art Foundation founder Glenn Fuhrman for a public chat about the uber-gallerist’s career, life, and—most interesting to me—afterlife. Apart from mentioning that he would like his collection to stay together, Gagosian also nominally addressed the long-pondered question about his succession plan at the gallery. Sarah Douglas highlighted the following exchange:
Fuhrman: I can’t think of any other billion-dollar business in the world that theoretically could disappear because it’s so reliant on a leader. Is your business something that could survive you?
Gagosian: We are working on that… I don’t have children and that’s usually how these legacies are established… But this is something that is really important to me.
Now, it’s no surprise Gagosian would be concerned with this topic in 2018. He was born the same year as World War II ended, and galleries hoping to maintain dominance across generations have traditionally been about as successful as candidates interviewing for a government job while on LSD.
In fact, even keeping the gallery in the family hasn’t been much help, especially once the actual founder keels. Just consider the Wildensteins, who went from art-market action heroes to courtroom-drama antagonists in less than a lifetime.
That being said, it’s possible that the cautionary tales of the past no longer apply to Gagosian’s empire.
Granted, I would be the first to tell you that art has been used to gain or maintain socioeconomic prestige throughout human history. But the strategies and sheer scale that define today’s high-end art market have transformed it into a hulked-out caricature of its former self—one that most strongly parallels the luxury-retail market, as Georgina Adam and others have detailed before me.
The important point is that luxury brands play by different rules than the rest of the economy, particularly when it comes to the entrepreneurs behind them.
NYU Stern School of Business professor and digital-brand strategist Scott Galloway argues that all luxury brands “share five key attributes: an iconic founder, artisanship, vertical integration, global reach, and a premium price.”
To Galloway, though, you need more than a great product to become an iconic founder. You need a compelling narrative.
Louis Vuitton, for instance, grew up in poverty before literally walking 300 miles to Paris as a teenager to start producing beautifully crafted (and formally revolutionary) stackable suitcases. He soon counted the Empress of France among his high-society clients. His story is basically a Charles Dickens novel, only served with a croissant and a cigarette instead of tea and a pipe.
Gagosian’s rise feels no less novelistic. As most readers know by now, he went from hawking posters streetside in Los Angeles to apprenticing himself to gallery deity Leo Castelli to becoming the most powerful art dealer in the world—all backed by little more than balls and hustle. Oliver Twist, eat your heart out.
So if Gagosian himself qualifies as an iconic founder, how does his business perform by Galloway’s other four metrics?
The only criterion up for debate is “artisanship.” But I think even this box can be checked relatively easily.
Obviously, Gagosian hasn’t been either making the art in his inventory or building the galleries in his fleet himself. But Vuitton didn’t grow his business by personally upholstering every trunk in his stores, either. I’d argue that what matters here is a VISION of artisanship, and the ability to get other people to actualize it for you.
So while Gagosian’s roster doesn’t have a unified aesthetic—how could they, when the list of exhibited artists currently numbers over 130?—they do have a unified sense of craftsmanship. We can argue about the merits of X or Y artist, but if you ever find a work that feels cheap or poorly made in one of Gagosian’s gleaming, meticulously designed galleries, I’ll cook my next meal in motor oil.
Satisfying the rest of Galloway’s criteria is academic.
Vertical integration? If Castelli initiated the model of a full-service gallery, Gagosian has carried it to its evolutionary endpoint by funding, exhibiting, selling, re-selling, installing, storing, advising, and publishing on art. Remember, as part of his 2016 tax settlement with the New York attorney general’s office, the gallery is even supposed to establish its own shipping company, which would complete the stack with a flourish.
How about global reach? Try 16 galleries in seven countries spread across three continents, plus a never-ending cycle of global art-fair booths and an expanding digital presence.
Premium price? C’mon, son…
In light of all this, Gagosian’s mortality might even have a silver lining if he can tap the right successor. As Galloway writes, “Dying removes the icon from the inevitable judgment of everyday existence, including aging, and elevates persona to legend—ideal for a brand.”
Just think: Louis Vuitton (the company) was founded in 1854. Louis Vuitton (the man) died in 1892. So the brand has been stacking cash for 164 years, and the founder has spent 126 of them stitching in that grand atelier in the sky.
Passing Galloway’s luxury-brand test hardly guarantees that Gagosian’s business will continue bull-rushing competitors into eternity. But the art market’s transformation over the past generation makes it a more plausible outcome than ever before.
On Thursday, we learned from Jori Finkel that the Getty—described as “easily… the richest museum in the world,” thanks to its $6.9 billion endowment—has broken from tradition and begun actively seeking donations from individual patrons. But I think we have to be careful about how we frame the issue, so we don’t lose sight of the move’s most significant impact on the arts.
Although the Getty’s policy shift technically took place last spring, tensions seem not to have flared in the philanthropic world until after it ramped up fundraising efforts in December with a mass mailing that offered membership levels like “friend” ($1,000 annually), “partner” ($25,000 annually), and “benefactor” ($50,000 annually) to prospective donors.
Everyone is saying the right thing publicly, with Getty Trust president James Cuno leading by example: “It’s not our intention to compete [with other Los Angeles museums], and it’s not the case that we have. We are not aggressively going after members of the boards at the Hammer or LACMA, for example.”
Personally, I wouldn’t find this statement super reassuring coming from an institution named after a dude so ruthless about cash that he continued holding back ransom payment for his grandson even after the kidnappers mailed the kid’s severed ear to an Italian newspaper. But hey, to each his own!
On another level, though, this whole debate is somewhat of a head fake—at least if we keep it isolated to comparisons between the Getty, LACMA, and the Hammer.
There are a lot of questionable decisions being made in American philanthropy today. But one of the most vexing is that so much money continues to flow to institutions with vaults that are already overflowing.
For a thorough unpacking of this issue, I recommend the episode of Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History podcast called “My Little Hundred Million.” Its central question is whether education qualifies as what David Sally and Chris Anderson, authors of soccer analytics tome “The Numbers Game,” called a “strong-link” or “weak-link” problem.
Basically, in any space, do you get the best results by spending huge money on a few elite targets—whether they’re Ivy League schools or high-paid strikers—or by spreading the same money around to upgrade the soft spots—whether they’re struggling state universities or unglamorous midfielders and sweepers?
Sally and Anderson find that soccer is a weak-link problem. Gladwell concludes the same about education. And I think arts non-profits work the same way.
Since most wealthy patrons could almost always give more than they do in any given year, a Getty gift doesn’t necessarily steal money from a more needy institution. But there are distinct tax thresholds for charitable deductions in the US, and many, if not most, philanthropists are scrupulous about observing those thresholds.
Case in point: When J. Paul Getty did finally pony up to free his kidnapped grandson, he capped the payout at $2.2 million—“the maximum amount that his accountants said would be tax-deductible,” per the New York Times. He technically supplied the roughly $800,000 remaining on the ransom, too… as a loan to the boy’s father, who had to pay back Getty at four-percent interest.
You don’t stay rich by spending money you don’t need to. Which takes us back to LACMA, the Hammer, and everyone else.
True, the Getty has an endowment of $6.9 billion. But not even counting the roughly $450 million already raised for LACMA’s $650 million architectural overhaul, last year’s annual financial statement showed the museum’s endowment reaching just over $200 million. The Hammer’s totaled over $110 million.
In that sense, if anyone not on their respective payrolls is asking whether the Getty’s sudden paper-chasing will affect those two major Angeleno arts institutions, then in the immortal words of a Hollywood exec I met with many years ago, it begs the commonly asked question: Who cares?
Instead, the crux of the issue is how much more benefit future Getty gifts could provide if they were redirected to weak-link institutions: the small, unglamorous causes that could meaningfully broaden the base of arts impact, not further gild the spires. Otherwise, it’s fair to ask the givers what their donations are really paying for.
Finally this week, let’s take a second gaze into the crystal ball of fashion for more on art’s possible future. On Monday, Christopher Morency profiled “19-year-old, Los Angeles-based, Brazilian/Spanish model and musician” Miquela Sousa, a high-style influencer nearing ubiquity in the luxury world. Which only becomes notable when you learn that she (“she”) is a digital rendering directed by one or more unidentified humans.
This minor wrinkle hasn’t stopped Miquela from booking modeling gigs, partnering with fashion labels, or releasing a song that charted on Spotify’s Viral 50 playlists. In fact, her strictly digital existence may have helped her. Morency writes that Miquela “offers brands a wider opportunity to partner with a virtual avatar, whose fast-growing following… is highly engaged and has not been bought.”
In other words, Miquela might be more influential precisely because she’s less “real”. She’s able to be anywhere at any time for anyone, without the pesky burdens and contradictions that come with offline existence.
Given the shrinking distance between art and luxury, no one should strap me into a straitjacket for wondering about the Miquela model’s applicability to our own industry. Aside from the practical considerations above, just think about the advantages of being able to design an identity from scratch in a global economic niche increasingly aware of issues like gender, ethnicity, and class.
Let’s be real: At this moment, the biggest advantage you can have in the art world is still to be a white cisgender male buoyed by a swell of family cash.
But if you’re an aspiring curator or artist who checks those boxes when the oldest, palest, most conservative generation gets replaced by a more progressive and diverse one, might there be a serious incentive to construct, say, a multicultural, gender-nonconforming avatar to achieve your dreams of influence in a world that would otherwise be sick of your shit?
For example, you could be born as Dash Snow, white boy descendant of the De Menil dynasty, but present online as Juliana Huxtable, transgender African American from College Station, Texas—all without ever having to change a thing about yourself IRL. All the benefits of diversity, none of the costs (or, you know, the actual lived experience that would inform and enrich a work of art).
You might say we’re too far away from this world to even make such a grassy-knoll, somewhat terrifying theory worth talking about. But don’t forget that the 2014 Whitney Biennial included the work of Donelle Woolford, a fictional artist invented by the white, male artist Joe Scanlan. I’d also ask you to look at the gender split and cultural panoply on display in this year’s New Museum Triennial, then read this quote from Miquela’s interview with Morency (conducted by chat, naturally):
“Since moving to LA, I’ve spent a lot of time in galleries and museums so contemporary artists like Carly Mark, Martine Syms, and Kerry James Marshall inspire me.”
By reaching for respected art-world talent from out of this fog of corporate partnerships and digitally obscured identity, Miquela and her creators have already brought this possibility closer than even my hyperactive imagination could fathom a few days ago. Maybe the grassy knoll is worth a second look.
That’s all for this edition. ‘Til next time, remember what William Gibson said: The future is already here—it’s just not evenly distributed.
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